Wednesday, February 22, 2006

In case you need a copy of it....

Statement on Sexuality Issues in the New England Synod of the ELCA
January 26, 2006
Bishop Margaret G. Payne

In my report to New England pastors at the Bishop’s Convocation in November 2005, I began by reminding those gathered of two important realities in our life as a synod: we abide by the policies of the ELCA and we are a Reconciling in Christ synod. Together, those two things mean that we work intentionally to welcome gay and lesbian persons and their loved ones into the life of the church while we honor the present policies of the ELCA. There are those among us who wish no change in our present policies while others work to advocate for change.

Since 2000 when the state of Vermont passed a law permitting same-sex civil unions, ELCA pastors have been asked to solemnize those unions and to offer pastoral support for those couples who have chosen to enter into such a union. Recently Connecticut passed a law allowing same-sex unions. In all of the states in our synod pastors have been asked to provide pastoral care and support for couples in same-sex relationships.

After I was elected bishop, according to my interpretation of the 1993 statement from the Conference of Bishops and after consultation with representatives of the Churchwide expression of the ELCA, I made it known that I believed it possible to regard officiating at a ceremony of civil union, and prayerful support of those couples, as appropriate pastoral care that did not necessitate discipline for the pastor as long as these guidelines were observed:

1. That pastors contacted my office to inform me of the details of the situation before they took part in any such ceremony
2. That they informed their congregation councils of their intent and made a final decision in consultation with them, understanding that I would not support them against their council if they acted independently opposed to the council’s advice
3. That the ceremony was not in any way presented as marriage or as an official rite of the ELCA
4. That the ceremony had the tone and intent of pastoral care, not a public display
5. That counseling be provided and that faithfulness in the relationship be as fully emphasized and expected as faithfulness in a heterosexual relationship

Until now I have not used the word “blessing” in connection with these ceremonies. However, I believe that the work of the ELCA Task Force for Sexuality Studies and the decisions at the 2005 Churchwide Assembly have shown that in this church there are differing opinions on whether or not that word may be used to describe the pastoral support offered to gay and lesbian couples. In the context of New England the word ‘blessing’ is deeply appreciated by gay and lesbian people and by those who love them and minister to them. This blessing might be considered part of the solemnization of a civil union or might be offered apart from a civil ceremony. For those to whom the word ‘blessing’ is an appropriate expression of the unconditional love that God offers to all people, it is especially important that all gay and lesbian people be intentionally included in that expression of God’s love.

Pastors in this synod differ in their beliefs about the appropriateness of using the term ‘blessing’ and they differ in their opinions about whether or not it is appropriate to preside at civil-unions or blessings. As long as a pastor is a responsible and responsive leader and a faithful pastor of the church, makes decisions in a collaborative fashion, and observes the policies of the ELCA, I trust and support that pastor’s discretion to make the appropriate pastoral decision in each situation. There are pastors in this synod who are not willing to preside at any form of same-sex blessing and I support them fully in that decision.

I have asked that pastors neither preside at same-sex marriages (which are legal in the state of Massachusetts) nor sign the marriage certificate. Generally a pastor has referred the couple to clergy of another denomination such as the United Church of Christ to officiate at the marriage.

Although I no longer regard consultation with me as mandatory, many pastors continue to contact me before becoming involved in any ceremony related to a same-sex union. There has not been a radical increase in these requests and there has not been an effort to present these civil-unions and blessings as rites of the church.

I am proud of the ELCA pastors in the New England Synod. There is a deep sense of support for gay and lesbian persons as well as a determination to interpret these acts most profoundly as pastoral care and welcome into a community of faith while observing the policies of the ELCA. In some cases, the people whose union is being blessed have been active and faithful members of a congregation and members want to be present for a blessing of the relationship. However, in most cases, the blessing is a very private experience which takes place in the home of the couple or one of their loved ones, the pastor’s office, or some setting other than the church building.

We have taken recommendation #1 from the 2005 Churchwide Assembly as seriously as we take our love for gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and our interdependence in the ELCA and together we continue to “concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements.”

During this year our Synod Council, in response to a request from our synod’s Task Force for Gay and Lesbian Understanding, is discussing Journey Together Faithfully, II as a group, and will respond to the Task Force and also consider producing a statement to be communicated to the ELCA Church Council. Congregation councils in our synod are invited to send statements to the Synod Council to further inform its deliberation. We look forward to the opportunity for further study and discussion as part of our commitment to continue to listen to one another as baptized brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ.

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